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A moment to think it through

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While I was looking for future leadership this fall, it found me. My 8-year-old granddaughter Ellery gave me a live demonstration. And she did it in just eight words.

The moment came quickly. We were chatting, the two of us – I forget what the topic was now – and suddenly Ellery’s eyes squinched closed, her radiant smile disappeared and she said forlornly, “I didn’t take time to think that through.”

If I’d had bells and whistles, I would have played them. Why? Because Ellery’s words reveal a bit of self-awareness that all would-be leaders would do well to share. How many times in this bumpy election season have candidates ensnared themselves on an issue, an action or a fact simply because they “didn’t take time to think that through”?

Answer: Too many to count.

A new society of entitlement has arisen all around us. It’s made up of people who believe they are entitled to impose their views, their issues, and, yes, even their facts on American politics simply because they hold them. Never mind whether what they offer are thoughts they’ve developed or just empty slogans. If it sounds good, it must be good. So, let ‘er rip and see how many people you can get to gather round. Show-biz politicos wheel and deal around the country shouting out their determination “to take our country back!” Teabag politics loves them. Sarah Palin can tell you how well it pays. The hot liquid goes down smoothly, seldom leaking through the hole in that spiel – namely, take our country back from whom? Who are we talking about?

As Ellery said, perhaps we’d better “take time to think that through.”

Those of us who remember even a little about America’s mid-20th century wars know what it feels like to have despots trying to take your country away from you. And we know what it takes to make certain they fail. Victory takes more than rallies and speeches about fear. It takes tough times and tough decisions – deprivation, the draft, death, families separated, new families put on hold – on a scale that reaches into nearly every American home. Those who remember even little scraps of those times have no yearning to live through them again.

So why is a rhetoric of fear and mistrust spilling all over the campaign trail? Why do members of Congress seem paralyzed as if by curare when it comes to doing the public’s business? Is it all about winning elections, nothing more? Has the high art of governing become the lesser art of holding on to power no matter what the cost? Even Maine’s own Republican Sen. Susan Collins is no longer immune from such questions.

New York Times columnist Gail Collins, with a long career as an editorial writer for that paper, raised them publicly on Sept. 24. Susan Collins, she noted, supports repealing the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” provision governing gays in the military that the defense bill would have repealed. Yet she did not support the bill, which included other controversial provisions, long enough and strong enough to move it to passage.

“I cannot vote to proceed to this bill under a situation that is going to shut down debate and preclude Republican amendments,” Collins, the senator, declared. And Collins, the columnist, found that hard to buy into.

“Perhaps Collins was frightened by tea party talk in her home state,” Gail Collins wrote. “Perhaps she had been unnerved by Lady Gaga’s decision to go to Maine and hold rallies on behalf of the bill…,” she suggested, then loosed this zinger, “Cynical minds might presume that (Sen.) Collins was just caving in to her party’s determination to keep the Democratic majority from accomplishing anything before the elections and grabbing at a convenient, if incoherent, cover.”

That assessment strikes me as pretty much the toughest national criticism Susan Collins has taken in her years in the Senate. It’s a reminder, too, that the stronger her hold on power becomes, the more intent the national focus on her will be.

For leaders now in power and new leaders who are coming along, it’s important to know large numbers of women have waited decades to see women contend for the presidency and other high offices, only now to be faced with candidates they do not like and will not support. The attitude, inspired in large part by Sarah Palin, reaches across both state and party lines. And future leaders need to face it. In today’s multifaceted communications world, people are watching and listening all the time.

Unlike lace veils and good dishes, leadership for Maine women is no heirloom gently passed from generation to generation. Power doesn’t work that way. And we probably would not like it if it did. Power and loyalty exist to be earned. That’s part of what makes spreading power to new generations of leaders so exciting.

Thanks, Ellery, for helping me “take time to think that through.”

Nancy Grape